- Saturday, September 18th, 2010 -
["YOU HAVE...THREE...NEW MESSAGES. FIRST...MESSAGE."][Beep.]
["Smellerbee. It's Jet. You've been lying low, right? Damnit...I don't know what the hell is going on. The shit has hit the fuckin' fan, for sure. Stay on campus until this blows over - same goes for Longshot. Was hopin' it wouldn't come to this but we don't fuckin' get everything we want. Right? Fff. Anyways...I'll keep you posted. Just sit tight."]
["Heya, Jane. How ya doin' lately, huh?"] It was Toph. ["Katara's gettin' pretty worried about you. You've just been hiding in your room all the time. Did you even go to class today? You should stop by some time, Janey-Jane. This week has been boring without your smart-ass remarks and bitchy attitude. And besides, you've got Katara all freakin' out about ya. You know how she gets."] Toph's tone turned down its humor just enough to convince Jane she was being genuine. ["She really cares about you, ya know. And, like...I'm startin' to. Also. Or something."] She took on a snappy defense, ["B-but don't let that go to your stupid Irish head! I just wish you'd come chill with our friends, is all. I know it's kind of awkward at first - and I know that's usually my fault, heh - but seriously, they're sweet guys. Er, like..'awesome' sweet. Sokka's not 'sweet' sweet. Pff. He's an idiot. What the crap was I...-? Oh, right. OK. So, like, come hang with us and stuff. Saturday night we're gonna do something. Give us a call or, ya know, walk across the hall, we'll fill you in. Whatever. OK-OK-OK, I'm done now. 'Kay. Byeeeee."]
["Good evening. Smellerbee, is it?"] Whoever this was, they were using a device to disguise their voice. This fact alone caused Jane's stomach to lurch as she had an idea as to who it was - generally speaking - and why they were calling. ["Smellerbee...Kind of an odd name for a girl. You are a girl, right? It's hard to tell. Interesting stories about you floating around. But don't worry. You're not our concern. We just thought it'd be courteous to request that you relay a message to your fearless leader, as you seem to be his right hand man. Or was it woman? Let Jet know that the Rough Rhinos know what he did, and that the favor is going to be repaid. Tonight."]
[Beep.]["END OF MESSA-"]
Jane closed her phone, her body stiffened, her mind drowning in fear. She stared at the phone in desperation before throwing it onto her bed as if touching it infected her with the poison of doubt.
"Fuck," she growled aloud. "Fuck-fuck-fuck." Her hands were trembling and she stuffed them into her baggy pants to try fooling herself into not noticing this fact. Her bare right foot tapped rapidly against the floor of her dorm room as drops of sweat formed on her forehead. She pondered what to do with herself next. She had to call Jet to make sure he was aware of the situation. Begrudgingly, she grabbed her phone and dialed Jet's number. No ringback.
["It's Jet. I'm out fighting for freedom at the moment."]"Shit."["Leave me a message."][Beep.]
"Jet, what's going on? I thought you said things were going to calm down? I just got a message from them. I don't know what's up but I think they might be coming after you. Watch your fuckin' back, man...Maybe you should skip town? I dunno. Call me back. Be careful."
Jane had known that sooner or later, something like this would happen, but she always figured it would play out differently. For some reason she had always expected something like the big fight in Gangs of New York - a mass of people all laying into each other - not a simple tit for a tat like this.
Now even more paranoid than she'd been before, pacing in a circle around her room repeatedly, Jane acknowledged her mental state. She considered her choices. She could continue to hide out, or she could take action. All of this hiding only seemed to be making her stir-crazy and freaked out. She meandered to her closet and dove through her things, retrieving a shoebox. She pulled out a small case and unclasped it. A four-inch knife, clean as a whistle, stared back up at her. Its hilt formed into the shape of a lioness, its mouth open in a roar.
Hello, old friend. What shall it be tonight? Business or pleasure? What do you think? I'm thinking 'business.'
Smellerbee took a deep breath, sucking in the cold, midnight air through her nostrils, then sighing out vapors through her lips. She shivered, pulling up her hoodie over her ragged, orange hair. She lifted a wary arm to her bleary olive eyes, rubbing at the dark bags that hung beneath them. She dropped her hand back into her maroon hoodie's waist pocket, where it returned to its position, tightly grasping the hilt of her trusty four-inch blade. Two stripes of red paint were smeared across each of her freckled cheeks – the look she liked to wear when she was out on 'business.'
Her other hand began to vibrate from the cellphone stored within it. She quickly took it out, checking its screen for the message she was anticipating.
[From: Longshot][hm?][Sent: 12:09am]
Smellerbee sighed to herself, her bony fingers squeezing the phone with frustration. Hours ago, she'd sent him a text message advising him to head to bed after his errands for the evening were done – that something had come up and she'd be busy tonight. She had hoped that by now, her boyfriend would be sleeping, not texting her one-syllable responses because he was apparently too lazy to write anything else. Smellerbee was already worried enough about one of the few friends in her life getting hurt tonight. She couldn't afford to have Longshot added to that list.
Smellerbee stuffed the phone back into her hoodie and peeked her head around the brick-walled corner she was residing upon. Her narrowed eyes glared up and down the quiet city street. Circles of light were cast upon the sidewalks from streetlamps, and she could see a blond woman in a jogging suit dashing by across the road. She glanced down the other way when she heard the humming of an engine, but it was just a car – not possibly who she was waiting here for.
She huffed with impatience and pulled her head back into the alleyway, rubbing her cold hands together within her hoodie's pocket.
The fuck are you, Jet?
She pulled out her phone again, punching a number on her speed dial.
[Calling...Jet]Pick up, pick up. C'mon...Argh, come on!["It's Jet."]Shit...["I'm out fighting for freedom at the moment."]The hell am I supposed to do?["Leave me a message."][Beep.]
Smellerbee shut the phone off after she'd hesitated to record a voicemail. At this point, it didn't matter. He was probably driving, anyway.
After a couple more minutes of tense waiting, Smellerbee finally heard the sound she'd been hoping would come around: a motorcycle. She poked her head out of the alley to confirm her suspicions. The vehicle in question was speeding dangerously around a corner, peeling down the road in her direction. She dashed out of the alleyway and entered one of the pools of light on the sidewalk, raising up her lanky arm in a frantic wave at the driver approaching her.
The familiar motorcycle steered dangerously into the alley Smellerbee had been hiding out in, giving her a start. She followed it on foot, bemoaning Jet's reckless behavior within her mind. She watched him slow to a stop, and made sure to direct a nasty glare in his face as she approached. He remained on his stationary bike as they talked.
"Smellerbee!" he huffed out in relief. She couldn't see his face well in the dark alley from a distance. "There you are." But his breathing was ragged and his voice trembled with a fear unlike anything she'd heard him utter. "Where's Longshot?" Jet demanded.
"I don't know," Smellerbee lied flatly. "Doesn't matter. I don't see what-""Did you call him?" Jet spat out frantically.
"Yea, I called him," she insisted with indignation to authenticate her falsehood. "Now will you tell me what the fuck is goin' on?" Her voice cracked with her curse word. Jet's paranoia tonight was rubbing off on her. The sound of a car passing by caused the two of them to freeze up and stare out toward the road, watching it plod on by.
"It's the Rhinos, man," Jet grumbled, pulling Smellerbee's attention back. He shook his head. "They figured us out."
Smellerbee's stiff face didn't react to this. She'd figured as much, given the message they'd left on her voicemail earlier that evening.
"They chasin' you down?" she grunted. She saw his head nod furiously. "Shit...Listen, my car's parked down on the next block, we should-""Shh!"
Smellerbee's heart skipped a beat at Jet silencing her, for the cause of his shushing was the rumbling of motorcycles slowing down and parking on the street Jet had entered from.
Smellerbee instinctively snuck up toward the alley's edge, leaving Jet to hide on his bike in the shadows behind. Crouching behind a dumpster, she eavesdropped on the distant voices that echoed down the road.
"-tellin' ya, this is the street."
"'S what he told me. Said he was following him, disappeared after this street. He's gotta be here somewhere."
"Yea, yea...Just get it over with."
Smellerbee could detect that they were still a little ways down, and she slinked to Jet's side.
"We wait around here, they'll find us," she advised in a gruff whisper.
"That's why you're going to stay here, and I'm going to leave," Jet replied coldly. Smellerbee's eyes went wide and grabbed him by the collar of his jacket.
"No. No," she growled into his face. "Enough of this bullshit. You don't have to do this."
Jet pushed her away in a slight but swift motion. Their eyes having adjusted to the darkness, they exchanged tense stares.
"I'm afraid I no longer have a choice," he replied. "If I leave with you, they'll just track me down. You were right. I have to leave town. It's the only way." He fished through his coat and pulled out his phone, extended his arm to her. "Take it. You're in charge while I'm gone."
Smellerbee's eyes began watering up. She couldn't accept this. Jet had been the closest thing to a leader she had come to know in her frustrating life. A life which had taken on new meaning since she had tried to break free of this crap, but still...part of her cared for him and his struggles. She just wished he could've let all of this go before it had gotten out of hand.
"Jet, I'm...I'm not one of you guys anymore," she grumbled out, struggling to hold back her rampaging emotions.
"Then what are you doing here?" Jet countered, a spark in his eyes. Smellerbee sighed begrudgingly at this, and when Jet didn't retract his arm, she accepted the phone, putting it inside her left jean pocket.
She was startled when Jet handed her another object: a Zippo lighter engraved with the likeness of an eagle. It was Jet's favorite belonging and a symbol of his role as the leader of the Freedom Fighters. Whenever he needed someone else to take command of a task, he'd lend them the lighter, like a badge they could show to establish their authority in the situation at hand. Jet had a habit of being theatrical like that.
"You'll always be a Freedom Fighter," Jet insisted coolly. Yep. Always trying to be Mr. Slick, all right.
His smirk in that moment took Smellerbee back to when he had first won over her allegiance with his smooth talking and suave mannerisms. To the end, Jet still insisted on doing things that way, didn't he?
Smellerbee choked on a sob, grabbing the lighter and dropping it in the other side of her jeans. Damn, these pockets were filling up fast, as were her eyes – with tears. She didn't even understand why. Apparently she cared more about him than she cared to admit to herself. He'd taken an angry, insecure, androgynous teenager and helped shape her into something more.
At the core of it, though, Jet's focus had always been on 'Smellerbee,' the Freedom Fighter, the gang member. Not the real person with the real name who hid behind this face-painted facade. Her new friends were helping her come out of the shadows Jet had kept her locked within. They were helping her consider the big questions: who was she, and what did she want?
But still...Right now, one thing she did want was for none of her friends to get hurt. That included Jet staying safe. Freedom Fighter or not, she was willing to do what it took to ensure that tonight.
The rumble of Jet's motorcycle starting up jolted Smellerbee from her sorrowful thoughts.
"Jet!" she cried, her heart suddenly pounding. She could hear the men from the nearby street scampering toward them.
"I'll be fine," Jet told her. But Smellerbee was well-enough acquainted with lying – especially Jet's lying – to realize that he wasn't telling the truth. In that wrenching moment, they both knew that one way or another, Jet was probably never coming back to this town. Her stomach churned with regret and fear as she watched him speed away.
Those Rough Rhino thugs were right around the corner, having just been startled by the bike whizzing past them. But now they were scampering off toward their own vehicles to pursue. It was business time. She wasn't going to let them chase after Jet.
Smellerbee whipped out her knife. In that moment, her lioness-headed knife expressed her mindset – its mouth wide open, teeth bared. She wasn't going to take a life tonight if she could help it, though. That part of her life was one she was trying to leave behind.
She made swift, lithe motions toward the trio of targets, and deftly extended a leg under the first one's ankle, tripping him into the sidewalk. The others immediately took notice and retaliated. The first took a swing at her with his fist, but she dodged, administering a kick to his groin. He doubled over as she swiped her knife out at the other, who had made to grapple her. The knife sliced across his palm, eliciting a yelp of horror.
The one she'd tripped was still regaining his senses, and she slammed her bony knee into the one that was hunched over for good measure. Her skinny limbs didn't have much momentum to them, but the blow was fast, leaving her target stunned, and she made a furious slash at his face as he fumbled over to the ground.
Just as she had figured that this was too easy, the one whose hand she'd cut was fumbling a pistol from his back pocket. She reacted in haste, pulling up the man she'd tripped and applying her blade to his neck. He was a bit taller than she was. But he was a bit scrawny, the youngest of the bunch, still dazed, and her knife's tip was pressed into his neck. With her hostage in tow, she retreated for the dark alley she'd emerged from, leaving the trembling gunman to consider his options as his friend shrieked on the curb beside him.
"You let him go, you whore," growled the gunman. "I've heard about you," he seethed. As Smellerbee stepped back, the overhead light cast her hooded head in blackness. Heh. Well, it seemed she'd lucked out with her hostage, as she could see in the gunman's freaked face that he actually cared about this kid. "We didn't ask for this shit, you brought it on yourselves..." the man continued with an empty threat.
Sliding into the shadows of the alleyway, Smellerbee could see the tell-tale sign of her rival gang on the man's shooting arm: a small tattoo of a rhino, inked near the inside of his elbow. It was at least reassuring to know that, if anything, she was hurting the right kind of people.
As Smellerbee pulled the blubbering, scruffy-faced man – jeez, he really wasn't much older than her, she was figuring – she patted him down. Damnit, no gun.
"Wh-! Wh-wh-!" The guy was whimpering in her grasp, stumbling back at her pace. Smellerbee twisted the knife's tip. "Guh-!""Shuddup," she hissed in his ear.
A sick and broken part of Smellerbee was enjoying every moment of this. The adrenaline, the fear, the power. It was all what had brought her to the Freedom Fighters in the first place. Had she really needed to assault these men?
In those tense, trembling seconds in the darkness, the gunman's attention was derailed. Not by the shriek of "-fuggin' cut me!" by his compatriot, but by the sound of vehicles approaching from where Jet had driven off. She could see the gunman's stunned form bathed in the light of multiple vehicles.
In her moment of disquieted distraction, Smellerbee was caught off guard as her hostage pushed her lanky arm off his neck, grasping for her head. The two struggled for a second and Smellerbee's hood was yanked off in the tugging. Jet's motorcycle, followed by two cars, approached in this moment. The gunman's attention was off of Smellerbee, but now directed at Jet, and he raised up his shaking arm, aiming his weapon at the oncoming vehicles. Smellerbee could see fear and panic in his eyes. All three of these idiots were still inexperienced at anything serious like this; simply scouts that had been sent to locate Jet. No wonder she'd been able to dispatch them so quickly – lucky, too, or she could've had a bullet put in her head tonight.
The pavement up ahead turned alive in a flash of light and metal and sparks that skidded across Smellerbee's narrow vision so quickly she couldn't catch what was happening. A wretched scraping sound, a metal crunching, squealing tires...Had Jet just crashed?
Smellerbee's focus was scattered at this point, and her opponent's force pushed her off. Her knife clattered to the ground while her body fell behind the nearby dumpster. The back of her head hit the tarmac – hard. The world became a blur as she scrunched up into a fetal position, grasping at the back of her skull. Footsteps, scampering to safety. Screaming, commotion. Sirens in the distance. Within the relative safety of her darkness, Smellerbee was crawling back to her knees. Her head throbbed and everything was a blur, but she managed to scoop up her red-edged knife and slip it into her hoodie as cautiously as she could in her dizzy state. Leaning against the brick wall beside her, she pushed herself up slowly, peeking out over the dumpster. Her captor and his associates were gone, and a thin trail of blood drops ran down the visible patch of concrete before her.
Concealed in this racket ensuing on the street, Smellerbee lurched to the corner on her right side, where the blood was leading, and peaked her wobbly head around the corner. She couldn't entirely make out what was going on, but she could hear bikes revving up as the police approached – her foes trying to flee the scene. Near as she could tell, Jet's bike was smoking in the middle of the road down a ways. She squinted, her sight still somewhat fuzzy as she tried to make out Jet. Her eyes focused long enough to notice a smear of red running along the path the motorcycle had crashed along.
It didn't look good.
The wailing sirens of the pair of police cars drew nearer, and she could clearly see their flashing light down the road – that was helping wake up her senses mighty quick as another shot of adrenaline pumped through her. She had to make herself scarce, like the others had. She forced her aching body in the opposite direction of all of the noise – toward her parked car on the other edge of the alley. She clutched the back of her head – damn, did it hurt like a son of a bitch. She could feel the damp warmth of her own blood from the scrape on her head. Her hands were trembling, but she couldn't resist the urge to clamp her palm against her pulsating noggin.
One dazed walk later, Jane had reached the next street over, where her car was parked. She finally removed her palm from her head and retrieved her keys from her back-pocket. Traces of her own blood were smudged onto them as jittery fingers struggled to jam the right key into the keyhole on her car door. She cursed under her breath with impatience, and quickly retreated inside of her vehicle. The light inside automatically turned off after a few seconds of her sitting in silence. Her whole body quivered from the ordeal she'd just experienced.
This was a mistake, she concluded. Shouldn't be here. This is exactly what I was trying to escape. Can't live with this shit anymore. I'm out. No more of this. The Freedom Fighters can go fuck themselves, I am done with all this.
Her mind spent minutes racing through her life's recent events, trying to figure out how in the hell she had gotten here. By the time she'd come to, the smeared blood on her hands was dried, and her right index finger had found its way up to her eyebrow. It was a nervous tick of hers – sliding her fingertip along her fuzzy eyebrows the way a man might stroke his beard or mustache. She pried her finger off, taking the keys from her lap and plugging them into the ignition. She paused before turning the key.
Her eyes were welled up, ready to burst with tears.
She let them.
-August 22nd, 2010- One month earlier
He stared at the book with thoughtful wonder for a moment, chewing the eraser end of his pencil. Inspiration was not coming, but Aang Leekpai was determined to defeat his lifelong adversary: the blank page. The bustle of his peers whirled around him as he sat alone on the sofa against the wall - his friends had to show up pretty soon, as it was starting to get a bit late and he was getting pretty antsy. It had been months since he had seen any of them face to face, and the summer had been a rather drawn out rinse-repeat process of working at a grocery store in the small town he had been moved to that summer. Inspiration. Hm. He needed something to spur his soul to draw.
The sound had come from the arm of the couch - his cell phone. He immediately set down his notebook and grabbed the device, flipping it open to read the message he'd received.
[From: Sokka][We're on campus. We're gonna go pick up Toph and meet you at the ACC in a few.][Sent: August 22nd, 6:34pm]
Finally. The wait was almost over. Aang was already crafting plans for their first weekend of the school year: a trip in the nearby woods, with a campfire, s'mores, swimming in a pond, petting salamanders and newts and frogs and-...Newt! Newt, newt, newt...chicken? No. Monkey? No, no. Dog?Dog. Newt-Dog. Bingo.
His pencil savagely attacked the blank page in a flurry of curved lines and shade scratching, whittling out the basic structure of a mutated combination between a German Shepherd and an amphibian lizard. He'd work out a finalized design later using photo references but the idea was set - another creature added to his ever growing zoo of mix-and-match animals. His task complete, he inhaled a deep breath of satisfaction, closed his notebook, and leaned back, soaking in the much-needed atmosphere around him after a long and lonely summer.
Stray tables and couches were sparsely populated, but within the next day or two they'd fill up quite nicely around this time of the day. A small shop carrying school supplies, souvenirs, and textbooks resided to his left, bathrooms, an elevator, and an information desk to the right, and the wide, open stairwell that led upstairs to the cafeteria or downstairs to the basement level was straight ahead. The basement contained a recreation room for pool, ping-pong, and foosball, along with the college post office, some student resource and study rooms, and the social hotspot that was the burger and fast food joint, Appa's. This place was like his home away from home - away from his dorm room, anyway.
This was the Avatar Campus Center - commonly referred to as the ACC - located smack in the middle of Saint Roku University. This was where memories were made: two-in-the-morning heart-to-hearts, pizza parties, passing time away while you waited for your friends to show up so you could finally go eat dinner...Some people practically lived there. Aang anticipated that this year would be no different. It'd be better, even, because the hard part was already over: he'd found his group, his niche, his clam-shell in the ocean of college.
Ripped from his nostalgia and startled back to his senses, Aang's attention focused back on his phone.
[From: Sokka][We're in the parking lot.][Sent: August 22nd, 7:03pm]
A quick survey of the building yielded no sarcastic grin or wave from his partner in crime, so Aang whipped his body up off the couch, stuffed his notebook into his shoulder bag, and burst through the entrance double doors behind him, shoving his phone into his khaki short pockets as he pushed his way out with his shoulder. His converse sneakers merrily bounced along the sidewalk in brisk steps - they had been tired out from their first year of use but Aang had faith that they would carry him through the months to come, and they seemed determined enough to oblige.
Aang reached The Circle - a large circle of sidewalk that surrounded the ACC. Different branches of campus trickled off from this main path, and all roads on campus led to The Circle. Straight ahead was the particular road that Aang was looking for: the entrance gates and parking lot. Not wanting to get too lost, he stayed put at the point where The Circle and the entrance path joined, and within moments the figures of his three favorite people in the world came into view, including that anticipated sarcastic grin of the tan-skinned Sokka Kesuk, the closest thing Aang had to a brother.
Without a doubt, it was Sokka: blue button-down shirt, not tucked in, black slacks, and those ever-present brown loafers of his, accented by loose hair over the sides of his face that evoked the image of a surfer-dude. Aang wasn't so sure how he felt about the new hair, but that wily smile had been unmistakably missed. Aang thrust his arms up and waved like a crazed bullfighter and bellowed out a war cry to his roommate that was reciprocated.
"Oh, my God," snickered Sokka's younger sister, coming from behind, her arm latched to her own roommate's. "The boys - they're together again. Toph, what have we done?"
"Pff, I have no idea," muttered the girl at her side, lifting a brow over her unfocused eye and smirking wide. "I already regret it."
"Us Aero Men have a certain obligation to uphold tradition," Sokka clarified with pride, puffing out his chest as Aang drew near. Upon the word 'tradition' being thrown into the air, Aang pumped his fist into the air and repeated the word 'tradition' in the thundering melody from the opening moments of Fiddler on the Roof. Upon concluding the word, both boys cried out, "Tradition!" before joining tunes and continuing the song of their own accord.
"OK, there, Tevye," Sokka's sister cut them off right after the second pair of 'tradition's.'
"Yea, thanks for that," Toph joked. "Two flat notes at once. Grrrr-ate."
But the boys were too enraptured in a manly hug full of superfluous back pounding to pay the girls any heed. It would normally be uncharacteristic of them, but when it came to expressing pride in their dormitory, nothing quite seemed out of place for Aang and Sokka, no matter how extravagant or loud. Eventually the hug died down to a more gentle embrace.
"God, I missed you, dude," Sokka sighed out.
"Missed you, too," Aang replied.
"Being roommates is going to be epic," Sokka affirmed.
Their hug continued for another unnaturally long moment until Katara sighed.
"They're still hugging, aren't they?" Toph grumbled, her free hand on her hip.
"Yep," Katara dully explained, rubbing her fingers across Toph's wrist before leaving her side and approaching the two interlocked men. "Hey," she grunted, pulling them apart as they laughed at their own behavior. "My turn."
"Katara!" Sokka gasped incredulously. "We were hav-ing a mo-ment!" he whined with exuberence.
Katara couldn't help but smile. Her brother just never quite seemed like himself these days unless he was with Aang. Brothers to the end, they were. "Come here," she said, wrapping her arms around her lanky sophomore friend and squeezing him tight.
"What?" Toph growled, tapping her sandal impatiently against the concrete. "How come I go last?"
"I think you know," Sokka coyly prodded, jabbing her in the arm with his knuckle. He delighted at how her cheeks went pink instantaneously. It was just too easy.
"Boy, did I miss you, Buddy," Katara expressed with warmth.
"Me, too, Katara," came Aang's equally affectionate reply.
"You missed yourself?" she teased.
"You know what I meant!" he chuckled back.
If Sokka was like his brother, it came as no surprise that Katara Kesuk had rapidly become his sister. In truth, it had really been the other way around. Katara had been his anchor during the beginning of college the year prior. She had been the first real friend he had made on campus, and it was through her that he had become such good friends with Sokka, resulting in their decision to room together this year. Without Katara, Aang didn't know where he would've been cast in the wide sea of college life, but he sure was glad she had caught him in her net and hauled him ashore. He couldn't deny her beauty despite the bulbous nose she shared with her brother, and it was no shock to him that boys always seemed to be going after her. Her appearance was somewhat exotic, with tan skin to match Sokka's, deep, dark eyes, thick, bushy hair of dark brown that ran past her shoulders, and a pair of braids looping from the sides of her forehead out to the back. Despite looking a bit foreign, she carried herself in a very plain manner, a poofy denim skirt supported by a white tank top on this particular summer evening, flip-flops beneath feet with blue toenails.
"OK, all right, girlfriend coming through," Toph jokingly dismissed, wandering over to them with arms spread open wide.
Katara grinned at Aang's flushed face and gave him a pat on the shoulder before watching him catch Toph in his arms. Her grip around him was tight and intense, her hands feeling their way around his back, his shoulders, his neck. His own hands had found their way down to her hips, grasping them with tender relief in that they were together again after months of agonizing separation.
Her head tilted forward, and Aang caught it with his own. They both relished the sudden proximity - this was a moment they had each been yearning for since the early days of summer. Aang stared carefully at her milky white eyes that focused no where in particular, but her expression reciprocated his attraction.
Toph Beifong had been completely blind from birth, but she never let this fact tie her down. Whenever someone approached Toph's blindess with an "I'm sorry," she would always respond without skipping a beat with, "Don't be. I'm not."
Aang admired her fiery determination, the way she picked on him relentlessly, the way she was able to poke fun at herself, as well, and the fact that beneath her rough attitude was a steadfast soul with a caring heart despite all she had to deal with - her blindness, her over-controlling parents, the pity people tried to enforce upon her.
Toph tended to dress very casual - a t-shirt and shorts pretty much did the trick, hair in a bun or tied into a convenient and bushy ponytail. On this day she had a green theme going on - green was her favorite color, which at first didn't make sense to most people, given that she had no concept of what colors were like. The way she explained it was that green was the color of grass, and the feeling of grass beneath her toes was one of her favorite things in the world. Given her penchant for walking barefoot as often as possible (which was not near as often a she'd like, unfortunately), she was quite familiar with grass.
Beneath the floppy lock of black bangs that hung between white eyes, her pale face taunted him with a mischievous smile enveloped in reddened cheeks. He poked at her left earring, a fluffy ball of white fur. Those were new, and they were cute. Toph reached her slender arms up over Aang's shoulders and draped her hands over his back, her fingertips tickling an excited chill up his spine. Their foreheads remained pressed together, neither going all in to lock lips. Sokka spewed forth an exaggerated groan.
"God, kiss each other already, I'm hungry!"
Katara burst into giggles and Aang and Toph's already colored faces flashed red like stop lights.
"We are hav-ing a mo-ment!" Toph mimicked Sokka's earlier complaint, feeling her nose forward and nuzzling it against Aang's. Her position confirmed, she leaned in and gave him a gentle peck on the lips. He returned the gesture, which she responded to with more ferocity, and back and forth they went for a few moments until palms were planted on skulls and mouths were opening over top one another.
"Aw, ech, ewwww," Sokka growled. "Come aahhn."
Katara found it adorable. Aang and Toph had both struggled in their freshman year trying to find a place where they belonged, and she was more than happy to accommodate this need, delighted with their company and companionship. She had seen their budding little romance coming from a mile away the prior spring. Her brother's lack of maturity was ruining the ambiance, though, so she slapped him on the chest and nodded her head to the ACC, motioning him to follow.
"OK, so, yea! You guys have fun with that," Sokka called out to their still interlocked bodies, his back turned. "We're gonna go and get some food now." He received no reply - as expected - and shook his head as they entered a side entrance that directly led downstairs.
"They're so cute," Katara mused, hands clasped behind her back. "Don't you think?"
"Yea," he admitted, his sarcasm meling away. "Not gonna lie. As long as they don't get 'cute' all over our dorm room, I'm all good. What about you? Where's your little...hunk-a-burning-street-thug?"
"Hey," Katara snapped defensively. "He is not a street thug."
"Isn't he the leader of a gang?" Sokka blurted out with spread arms, aghast at her nitpick.
"They're an organization," Katara tartly clarified, index finger waving at him as their descent concluded and the ACC basement welcomed them with wafting scents of burgers and fries. "A non-violent group of protesters."
"Yea, yea," Sokka dismissed with a flick of his wrist, crossing his arms. "The guy just rubs me the wrong way, Katara."
"That's just because you don't understand him," she insisted, attempting to keep the recurring conversation calm. She had been debating this enough times over the summer and was far from being in the mood to go through the motions again.
"Maybe that's because he's made no effort to let me," Sokka testily pointed out, the booths of the Appa's Grill restaurant mostly empty. "How about a, 'Hey, there, brother of the girl I'm dating, how are you?'" He mocked the gruff voice of the boy in question with jest. "I never see the guy, Katara. I know nothing about him. Maybe if I knew his name, that'd be a good start."
"His name is Jet," came an irritable specification. How many times had she told him this by now?
"His name is not Jet," cried Sokka in aggravation, shrugging and rolling his head backward in disbelief. "That's not a real-person name!" True, but he didn't like being called by his real name, he preferred his self-manufactured nickname.
"Whatever," Katara huffed, already exhausted. Why was he ruining this moment of arriving on campus? What did it matter? "Can we just...drop this, Sokka?" she pleaded in a whsper, unnerved, arms latched around her stomach. They stood in line behind a gigantic student in a basketball jersey - number 14 - who was placing his order at the counter.
"Fine by me," Sokka muttered wth nonchalance, tilting his head to the side. "I'm just sayin'...I don't like the guy."
"Yes," Katara hissed. "You've made that pretty clear. Thanks."It's none of your business, Sokka. Butt out of it.
"And what I can get you today, guys?" greeted the familiar tone of the fellow student working the counter. His greasy hair was slicked back into a thick ponytail that trailed out of the back of his white baseball cap - part of the restaurant uniform. His skin tone and facial structure was similar to Katara and Sokka's, but he was Hawaiian while they were descendants of Inuits from the north.
"Haru," Katara acknowledged him, eager to use sociability to push her sibling conflict aside. "Hey, how are you doing? How was your summer?"
"Aw, man, good stuff." He always spoke with a relaxed tone, which made his incredibly easy to approach with even the most mundane of conversation. "Spent a lot of time out on the beach, worked construction for the first time."
"That's right, you're from...-" Katara fished through her memories and retrieved the answer. "San Francisco?"
"Los Angeles," he corrected with a sly grin. Oops - wrong answer.
"Oh, yea," Katara sputtered sheepishly. "Sorry."
"Nah, 's all good, Kat. So what can I get you Kesuks?"
"Double-Bacon-Cheeseburgerrrr," Sokka mechanically spouted with rapid execution.
"I'll...-" Katara shot an embarrassed glance at her brother, his hands casually tucked in his pockets. He gave her a perplexed look that read, 'What?' She finished by deciding, "-take a BLT wrap please."
"Oh, and root beer," Sokka added.
"Yea, and I'll have some lemonade," Katara squeezed in.
"Gotcha." Haru scribbled some code onto his order sheet: 1 DBC, 1 BLTW, 1 RB, 1 LEM - KATARA
He jotted numbers on it before tearing it off his pad and hanging it above the grill behind him. He rapidly punched some keys into his electronic register to ring up the price, and requested, "That'll be $8.34." Katara caught his eyes wandering to places other than her face as she pulled a ten-dollar bill from her skirt's back pocket. Somehow feeling flattered that a popular guy like Haru was checking her out, she slapped the bill on the table, shyly gazing behind him to his co-workers who were already cranking out their order. He stuck out his hand for her to take her change, and she tried not to let the contact of their hands get under her skin in her dazed mental state.
Haru filled a couple of tall disposable cups at the soda fountain beside the register before sliding them onto the counter. Katara's eyes caught the new design on the cups: white with a large, sky-blue arrow pointed downward on either side. The trademark icon of the college, the arrow was a symbol that Katara had quickly grown to admire.
Sokka eagerly scooped up his drink and was immediately sucking down his carbonated nectar as Haru informed them, "It'll be just a couple minutes." Katara nodded at him and spun around, forgetting her own drink in her flustered mindset. Sokka grabbed it for her and joined her at a nearby booth.
The dim lighting of Appa's was comforting and warm, like a crackling campfire at sunset on a windy summer's day. The practically empty restaurant was oddly welcoming, offering a homey feeling of privacy and comfort in a public place. Recognizing this reminded Katara of why, exactly, this place had become such a hotspot for their social meetings.
"Why don't ya give that Haru guy a shot?" Sokka suddenly asked in a subdued tone, seemingly out of nowhere. "I saw you guys checkin' each other out."
"Wow," she murmured with bashful humor. "My brother is pitching men at me. You must really not like my boyfriend."
Sokka, slurping down root beer through his straw, shrugged, waggling his eyebrows up and down.
"He's a soccer player," Katara mumbled with some disdain. Secretly, she felt charmed by this fact, but acknowledged the lack of practicality of the idea in her tone. "Not exactly my type."
"Oh, but guys who carry around switch-blades?" Cynicism dripped from his every word. "Hey, that's just fine."
"He doesn't-" she instinctively began, but gave pause when she seriously considered his remark upon the wide expression on her brother's face. "O-OK, maybe he does," she admitted, recalling him showing it off to her in a fleeting moment at the end of the previous school year. Funny how Sokka had clung to that fact while she had put it off. "But he lives in the city - that's for self defense."
"And why would he be that concerned with defending himself?" criticized her concerned sibling. "And from who?"
Schluurrrpp. Sklllllurp. Schlp. Schlp. He'd hit the end of his beverage and was sucking up remnants through the ice, giving her a raised brow.
"I thought we were done talking about this?" Katara seethed, bottom lip propped out in vexation.
To her rescue, a giggling couple emerged from the stairway they had come in through.
"Can't you come up with something else? Something...not girly?"
"You gettin' sick of it? You don't like Twinkle-Toes? I like Twinkle-Toes."
Aang made a pouting whimper. "It makes me sound like a ballerina."
Toph retorted insidiously, "Maybe you are like a ballerina."
Sokka cut into their twittering debate with a wave: "Yo! Lovebirds, we're over here!"
Katara twisted around to see Aang leading Toph to the counter, her arm amorously linked around his as the large boy in the jersey from before grabbed his food and headed off upstairs. Aang emphatically waved to them while Toph tossed out an aloof, "Hey, guys," before they went to order.
Katara found herself longing what they had - side by side, hand in hand, accepted by their peers...All of Sokka's nagging over the summer hadn't shaken her. Every time she had called him he'd bother her about it afterward. Every time they'd comment on each other's Facebook photos and Sokka would catch wind of it, another dismayed comment. All of this hadn't shaken her will at all, yet seeing her two friends together, in that moment, and comprehending how different her relationship was from theirs...it planted a seed a doubt in her mind.
Before she knew it, Toph was scooting into the booth at her side and Aang was slapping his arm across Sokka's back from across the table.
"So!" Sokka began, his eyes suspiciously wandering to Aang. "You two get all that oughtta your system?" he badgered.
"Nope," Toph matter-of-factly bucked back. "We're gonna pick up where we left off later. Months of catching up to do, ya know?" A gratified smile popped onto her face as she slipped her sandals off, rubbing her bare feet across the tile floor.
Aang shook his head in amused chagrin, eyes rolled back at her blunt humor as the shape of his mouth gradually matched her own.
"Good to know," Sokka hurriedly dismissed with a jovial 'too much information' tone.
"So what do we wanna do?" Aang wondered.
"The evening is our oyster, ladies and gents," Sokka smoothly proclaimed, leaning back and stretching. "Anybody got suggestions?"
"We should take our food outside - it's pretty nice out." Katara suggested.
"Oh, sweet," Toph cried, slapping her palm on the table. "Sounds good to me."
As Sokka proceeded to shoot off a quick-fire summary of his summer vacation, Aang pulled out his notepad flipped to his second page, sketching a rough drawing: two boys and two girls sitting at a table who bore a vague resemblance to their own group. One of the girls had pencil-mark bangs covering where her eyes would go. After a moment of staring at Toph from across the way, her engaged expression unable to detect his gaze, he bit on his eraser and made an addition. Above this girl's head he drew a heart, taking care to shade it and fill it with a level of detail that exceeded the rest of the picture. He signed it in the corner, 'Aang,' with the end of the 'g' curving into a spiral, and inscribed '8/22/2010' in tiny writing with the title, 'Inspiration.'